Opinion | Morgan Liddick: The real Aunt Jemima
On Your Right
Ladies and gentlemen, meet Nancy Green. Born a slave in 1834 Kentucky, she rose to prominence as a cook, then became a public speaker, an advocate, a minister and philanthropist. She helped found Chicago’s Olivet Baptist Church. She was the first black woman to serve as a nationwide corporate image. Her exhibit at the 1893 Chicago Exposition was so overrun by crowds that the police were brought in. By 1910, she was one of the best-known black women in America. Struck by a car and killed in 1923 at 89 years of age, Nancy Green was buried in an unmarked grave because she was black. She was also the real woman behind “Aunt Jemima.”
After the Civil War, Green moved to Chicago as part of the first great migration out of the South. She became the housekeeper and cook for the well-connected Judge Charles Walker, who introduced her to R. T. Davis, part-owner of a milling company. Davis had been experimenting with self-rising pancake mixes and had acquired what he thought was a winning product from St. Louis baker Chris Rutt, but he knew that bringing the new mix to market would require the emerging art of advertising. The mix already had a name — Rutt had borrowed it from a minstrel show character — but when Davis met Green, inspiration struck and America’s first culinary superstar was born.
The “Aunt Jemima” image printed on bags of pancake mix was inarguably a stereotype, born of the prejudices of the day and no more or less offensive than contemporaneous depictions of Irish and Italians, Slavs and Asians in the popular culture. To those more concerned with history than image, however, what went on behind the scenes was the more important part of this story.
“Aunt Jemima” allowed Nancy Green to travel widely and gave her an independent income. It allowed her to raise more than $3 million dollars for various charities and put the name of a black woman — albeit fictitious — on a major American corporation when the Davis Milling Company became the Aunt Jemima Mills Company in 1914. Green should be remembered and celebrated for these accomplishments, but alas — her memory is now in the hands of Vandals, who care nothing for the past but for the noise it makes when smashed.
Vandals destroy because they are unable to distinguish the valuable from the worthless. They burn and loot to satisfy their wants because they cannot or will not address these impulses in a civilized manner. They smash things that offend them in ways they cannot express to pay homage to whatever god presides over the empty thrill of wrecking. They cannot create, because they haven’t the knowledge, nor the skills, nor the patience to do so; their only gifts are those of destruction. It is they who our politicians and our media have allowed to wrap their hands around America’s throat.
Aunt Jemima must go, the Vandals cry, and Uncle Ben as well. And all memorials to anyone tainted by association with the late, unlamented Confederacy. Which sweeps away not only the memory of Nathaniel Bedford Forrest — good riddance, too — but also important physical reminders of our past following the war that ended slavery, with their lessons that history, including ours, is not always written by the victors and is not always as reliable as it might seem. Thus posterity is deprived of evidence of the dishonest “Lost Cause” narrative. Thus do we forget the politics of those who fired on Fort Sumter and of those who prevailed at Appomattox. Such details are meaningless to Vandals, but vital to any who pursue truth based on fact so there are very clear winners and losers in the current Cultural Revolution’s bout of joyous smashing.
We should also recall that such violence spreads, lapping up causes further and further from its sources. First, Jefferson Davis; then Washington and Jefferson, slaveholders both. Then whatever else the Vandals fancy should be tossed into the Memory Hole, until we are without a past or a foundation and ripe for such reinvention as suits the leaders of the mob currently running rampant over our supine so-called leaders.
The bitter irony is, after Davis and Forrest, Jefferson and Washington and Nancy Green, the mob will consume itself; it always does. But by then America will be a devastation masquerading as a country. And Green will be a forgotten name on an obscure tombstone in a neglected Chicago cemetery. Nothing more.
Morgan Liddick’s column “On Your Right” publishes Tuesdays in the Summit Daily News. Liddick spent 27 years working for the U.S. Foreign Service, primarily living abroad. He also spent 12 years teaching U.S. history and Western civilization at community colleges in Colorado and Texas. He lived in Summit County as recently as 2015 and currently lives in Virginia. Contact him at email@example.com.
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